While regimes across the Middle East face uprisings by workers and citizens fed up with autocratic rule, poverty and corruption, workers in the Mid-West have been protesting attacks on their workplace rights for the past week. The protests began in Wisconsin, in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to ban collective bargaining and striking and his threat to call in the National Guard on workers who do strike. The protests have now spread to Ohio, with similar actions looming across the region. Wisconsin’s workers have been inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East, with demonstrators calling their governor Hosni Walker and carrying signs saying “Protest Like an Egyptian.”
The last time Wisconsin used the National Guard against workers was in 1886, in response to protests in support of the eight-hour day movement that grew out the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. In Milwaukee, the state militia fired on striking steel workers at Bay View, killing seven. Walker’s declaration is a stark reminder of the brutality the state has historically used to defend private profits, and should be seen as wakeup call to workers that history often repeats itself.
In Wisconsin, tens of thousands have been demonstrating throughout the week, with enough teachers calling in sick to effectively shut down the Madison and Milwaukee school districts. 30,000 protested outside the state capital in Madison on Wednesday, with dozens of workers and students camping out overnight. Many private sector workers joined them with some grilling bratwursts and providing other support. Veterans groups also joined the protests and issued condemnations of Walker’s threat to use the National Guard against his own citizens. 1,500 people marched on Walker’s suburban Milwaukee home. Thousands of university and K-12 students also walked out of classes across the state.
Walker’s budget plan would bar public workers from negotiating over pensions, health care benefits, and workplace conditions, while forcing them to double their contributions to pensions and health care, resulting in an 8-20% pay cut for most employees. It would also ban strikes. However, the biggest threat (in the eyes of the union bosses) is the elimination of automatic dues check offs, which would jeopardize millions of dollars of members’ dues that have been used by the union bosses to buy lobbyists, influence politicians, and maintain their seats at the ruling class banquet tables. It is no coincidence that Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers have fled the state in hopes of blocking a vote on the law—they stand to lose millions in campaign contributions.
Unions like the AFT and NEA have sold out their members repeatedly by supporting Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core Standards, their tacit acceptance of NLCB, and in many cases collaborating with districts to impose merit pay and evaluations tied to student test scores. They routinely collaborate with lawmakers to impose wage and benefits cuts, furloughs and pension cuts on their members. It seems unlikely that they would suddenly decide to fight back now, unless there was a stronger motivator than their members’ standard of living. In fact, the unions have made it clear that they will accept Walker's pension and health care cuts, if he would just leave their unions intact. The rank and file workers, however, seem much more concerned with the attacks on their wages and benefits and their right to take collective action in defense of their working conditions. Workers across the country are fed up with the ruling elite’s assault on working people to pay for their greed.
There has been very little labor militancy in the U.S. since the 1980s, after the crushing of PATCO by Reagan, and the defeats of the Hormel, Greyhound and Phelps Dodge workers. Since then, the AFL-CIO and public employee unions have done everything in their power to suppress labor militancy, avoid strikes, and redirect worker frustration to political campaigns.
Contrary to Gov. Walker’s claims, Wisconsin is actually managing relatively well compared with other states. Their current budget deficit is only a $137 million, compared with $25 billion in California. The projection for next year is considerably worse, but nowhere near the scale of the crises in California, Texas and Illinois. What problems there are with the budget can hardly be blamed on teachers and other public employees. Walker gave away $140 million to special-interest groups in January, hardly a prudent move for a man obsessed with closing a budget deficit.